With the Tour de France in full swing, saddle up and check out the greatest books on two wheels
Jon DayFri 13 Jul 2018 06.30 BST
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes argued that the Tour de France was an epic ritual as much as it was a sporting event. For Barthes the race, which set off from the village of Noirmoutier-en-l’Île in north-west France last Saturday, traversed “a veritable Homeric geography”, providing a way to map a nation and celebrate the heroic tenacity of those who cycled through it.
Books about racing have tended to focus of the physical suffering endured by the long-distance road cyclist (and often on their chemical aids). As early as 1902 the experimental playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry, who scandalised French literary society by wearing his cycling outfit to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s funeral, described the way in which competitive cycling reduced riders to machines. His absurdist, whimsical novella The Supermale describes a race between a group of cyclists and a train. The riders are fuelled by a cocktail of drugs and one dies during the race but, being legally contracted to finish it, his body is obliged to carry on cycling.
The finest account of the introverted suffering of bicycle racing – and one of the greatest sporting novels ever written – is the Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, a first-person description of a semi-professional, one-day race, recounted kilometre by kilometre. Krabbé is a cyclist and also a championship chess player, and he’s exceptionally good on the tactics and mind games involved. In The Rider the race becomes a duel between the narrator and another rider. It’s also a book about obsession. “Non-racers,” the narrator thinks, as he surveys the crowd of race spectators. “The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”
At its best cycling, like bicycle writing, provides a way of encountering familiar places in new and surprising ways. “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Two of the best books to celebrate this kind of discovery are Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, her classic account of a ride undertaken in 1963, armed with her bicycle, named Roz, and a pistol; and Emily Chappell’s What Goes Around.
• Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier is published by Notting Hill Editions.